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Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).
Cynthia Ozick‘s first collection of stories, The Pagan Rabbi and Other Stories, exemplifies her ability to articulate and explore juicy paradoxes in the fields of art and religion. For example, Ozick views fiction in its essence as contradicting Jewish tradition-because, of course, all art is a form of idolatry. But writing fiction is still her bread and butter.
This contradiction hovers over Ozick’s story ‘The Pagan Rabbi,” which features Isaac Kornfeld, a Torah scholar and talmid hakham who reads Byron, Tennyson, and Keats, and then falls in love with a dryad (that is, wood nymph), a spirit out of pagan folklore. Since in Ozick’s view literature and paganism are more or less identical, loyalists of fiction like her, who want to remain Jewish, need some help resolving the contradiction, perhaps along the lines of Kornfeld’s argument that “Holy life subsists even in the stone…Hence in God’s fecundating Creation there is no possibility of Idolatry.” Not that Kornfeld’s ideas lead him anywhere pleasant: he ends up hanging himself from a tree.
That fiction contradicts Jewish tradition is not only philosophy for Ozick, either; her novella Envy; or, Yiddish in America (reprinted as the second piece in the collection) managed to scandalize the real-life Yiddish literarishe velt upon its first appearance in Commentary, in 1969. A tale of two Yiddishists–one, Ostrover, a short story writer who is famous around the world because his work is translated into English; the other, Edelstein, an obscure and bitter poet known only to readers of small literary journals in mameloshen.
Envy is a portrait in miniature, with deliberate and gleeful distortions, of the possibilities of Yiddish in postwar America. The satire did not go unnoticed. Sadly, the extraordinary Yiddish poet, novelist, and critic Jacob Glatstein went to his grave in 1971 assuming that Edelstein was a cruel version of himself, just as Ostrover was obviously modeled on Isaac Bashevis Singer.
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